I was a food technologist: A chronicle from teen-age to new age by Aaron Brody

author of this post in cap and gown holding a young son in his arms
Dr. Brody celebrates the awarding of his PhD with son Stephen in front of MIT chapel.

I graduated with a degree in food technology. Several years later, the term food science was proposed – and applied sort of. Today we have food science; food science and technology; Nutrition and Food Science; — and an assortment of nomenclatures such as food processing, food engineering, culinary arts, Institute of Food Technologists, etc., etc.

In olden days, chefs and cooks were just that – and admittedly not experts in technology; how much of culinary arts training addresses science today? In my day, nutrition was an indispensable and integral component of food technology and not an independent entity populated by amateurs.

Dr. Aaron Brody revisits this site to tell us “What is significantly different today than it was when he was young during the 1940’s?” Those of us who knew him through his teaching of Food Packaging at UGA may have trouble visualizing him in his youth. This piece jumps around a little, but it is definitely worth the read and a nice diversion from the news of coronavirus.

young man sitting on a ledge of a tall building
A young Dr. Brody on top of the world. Photo courtesy of Robyn Brody.

At MIT, during the 1940s and early 1950s, we had two women enrolled in Food Technology (out of ten female undergraduates in the Institute) – and one Asian and certainly no Afro Americans — today — the genders and ethnicities appear to be totally inverted

In the “good old days,” academic Departments of Food Technology were headed by professionals named Proctor, Prescott, Fellers, Mrak, Ball, Buck, Schweigert, Francis, -all of whom were giants and positive contributors to the entire food community. Today, we are challenged to recall the names and contributions of contemporary university department heads.

Back then, professors’ and researchers’ reputations derived from industrial and near commercial applications that propelled food safety, quality and processing to new spheres. Today, academic biographies seem to emphasize the count of peer review publications – with many approaching half a thousand – that is a lot of paper and ink. How many academic patents or relevant learnings do we devour today?

Government and industry cooperated in regulation for safety – and information for all including consumers and industry. FDA and USDA worked in concert to address issues under their jurisdiction – not without effort, but with relatively good results considering the massive size of the food industries. And then came the Delaney Clause which banned any chemical regardless of quantity that could cause cancer in man, woman or animal. Delaney was invoked to arrest the introduction of hydrogen peroxide as a sterilizing agent for aseptic packaging, polyacrylonitrile as a barrier plastic for beer and carbonated beverages, polyvinyl chloride as a food package material and food colors, – and to occupy regulators and lawyers for years. Hardly a food headline during the 1960s and early 1970s did not feature Delaney.

And let us not forget the public discussions on nutrition labeling – seemingly civilized throughout the development and initiation. Made sense in theory and early practice, even if many readers/consumers could misinterpret and distort the data. Nutrition labels halted many of the most absurd label health claims on food packages but led to a torrent of “supplement” products that were marketed outside of the provisions of FDA and USDA. No claims were made; only inferences supported by a modern version of “snake oil” hucksters, and backed by some vocal legislators – strange bedfellows – who still stalk retail outlets, periodicals, television evangelists, advertising and self-proclaimed nutrition experts.

With all of the issues of the food regulatory system – the United States’ food supply is the safest in world history – hardly perfect – but exceptional. In my college days, the accepted data had Public Health statistics counting about 6000 annual deaths from food. Excellent, but not ideal, for a 150 million population. Today the “official” death toll is 3000 on a population of 300 million – a major decrease, approaching but still too far from the target zero level.

Preceding and during the 1940s, beef was carried in quarters and sides (see “Rocky” et seq.), and dismembered in free standing butcher shops. Beef came from pasture-fed cattle. And then came several related but different events: feed lots to quickly and uniformly finish the animals before slaughter; the advent of supermarkets and supermarket backroom cutting; and prepackaging in (DuPont) cellophane- all from the 1950s. Delivery of primal cut beef packages under reduced oxygen hermetically sealed in Cryovac vacuum barrier bags. Open the bag, and knife and saw ready product for flexible wrapped cuts were swiftly made ready. Intact steaks, roasts and cuts coupled with coarsely ground beef in flexible barrier chub packages to deliver ready-to-grind retail portion packages. Ground beef represented nearly half of all retail beef – now easier to “process” in retail facilities. The antecedents of case ready meat – a work now in progress.

During the 1960s, cellophane and aluminum foil laminations, both with major limitations, were the only flexible package materials. Bursting on the scene were plastics (remember Benjamin Braddock?) – to cover the world. Tailored materials for every conceivable application – aircraft, buildings, clothing, medicine – and packaging especially for foods. From the 1950s forward, polyethylene, oriented polypropylene and polyester films, independently of each other captured the rapidly growing flexible food (and medical, institutional, industrial, household chemical, personal care, etc.) packaging markets. Heavy weight and relatively expensive rigid and semi-rigid containment of products in glass, steel, aluminum and paperboard gradually retreated in the face of the newly functional flexible plastics – until during the 1990s, someone looked into a dictionary to unleash “sustainability” – another issue for another year.

When I was but a wee pre-teen, absent of any cognizance of food except as a carrier of Captain Midnight decoder rings, paperboard, glass and three piece steel cans were the dominant rigid containers. Plus paper sacks from the clerks at the A & P.

Back then all cans were three piece tin coated steel. Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice were shot from guns into paperboard boxes. What a difference two score years make. Most of our fluid beverages are in injection blow molded polyester bottles or two piece aluminum cans, and foods are ensconced in steel cans with easy open ends- no can opener or church key required (how is a church is opened with a key?). Today you can drop almost any bottle and it will not smash, shatter and spill, but rather bounce. With flip tops to facilitate dispensing.

In the “good old days” hot dogs, corned beef and bacon were wrapped in parchment paper which – yes – leaked and smeared. And offered shelf life until tomorrow morning or lunch. Today virtually all delectable cured/processed meats are in reduced oxygen barrier flexible pouches and trays capable of weeks if not months of safe shelf life. And so we are caught in a fascinating dichotomy – processed/packaged foods, an alleged anathema on the food scene, are microbiologically safe, capable of long preservation using millennia old technologies, yummy to eat at home or in the ball park. Born of meat, preserved partially with salt and smoke, processed and packaged – cured meats have been declared lethal by that infamous vocal minority – after centuries of pastrami sandwiches during which we did not live nearly as long as now. I leave it to the reader to grasp this babble (or is it Babel?).

During the 1940s – after World War II – much of the population was down on the farm – complete with beef cattle, hogs, poultry, and peas and beans and stuff. Those raw materials were processed, i.e., converted from live animals, recently hooked fish, greens and reds into ready to cook or chill edibles. Folks ate three times daily using age old recipes and were well nourished with acceptable and even some really flavorful bread, cake, cookies, corn on the cob, steaks, pickles, Heinz catsup, butter and Crisco. In case you have not noticed, today’s food surge is to break down flora into components and assemble a few of them into fake food akin to natural, but truly a gamish – like the old times when cottonseed oil metamorphosed into margarine to displace butter – but much more processing – to what end? Safer? Higher nutritional value? More complete flavor or masticatory properties? To spark loud complaints about the evils of processed and ultra-processed foods? Nay – to birth the new world of sustainability – a really far distant cousin of safe food delivery. 

Before my matriculation, flavor profile as a measure of food/beverage quality was an almost secret singularity from one now defunct consulting organization. Flavor profiling was adopted too slowly as a major tool from quality analysis. How can you use human sensory testing to meaningfully measure food? People are not instruments; really, can you, dear reader, drink a beverage and identify sweet and sour? Every day and night. Today, in Woody Allen flicks, descriptors of flavor elements of food and wines are scripted into the dialogue. And into everyday conversation at the dinner table. Astonishingly, marketing messages with qualitative and quantitative data and detailed descriptors are offered on labels and in commercials for wine, beer, cheese, ketchup, fruit, etc. The Flavor Profile has come a long way dear reader and eater.

guest author enjoying a cruise complete with sailor hats and shades
Captain Brody. Photo courtesy of Robyn Brody

During the middle twentieth century, foods were preserved by thermal sterilization; removal or water; salt, sugar and smoking, (was that pickling?). Grandma spent all day preparing dinner and all night for breakfast. We had no fast food, or other highly cost and safety efficient ubiquitous retail outlets capable of virtually instant delivery of filling, flavorful hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, pizza, ice cream, soup and grilled sandwiches. Yes Abie, they, whoever they are, assert that fast food – including salad bars and outlets, is lethal – but where are the death certificates citing quick service foods as causative? Don’t medical facilities actually serve fast food to staff and visitors? Economics and consumer preferences dictate the incorporation of fast food into institutional food operations.

Before Clarence Birdseye, we had no seafood in the middle states, no frozen convenience TV dinners; no fiddle heads; no frozen concentrated orange juice – and ice cream was available only at Howard Johnson’s after a car ride. What dreary culinary lives we suffered. And there were no chilled ESL juices; or Tetra Pak; and aseptic was a complicated technology that hardly anyone would dare even think about – hazardous to your health – except in continental Europe, of course.

Look it up in your history books or television reruns: the 1950s hardly heard the notions of, much less tasted, Chinese food (well- sort of), pizza, Mexican, Jewish (except in select urban areas), sushi, ramen, kabobs, kimchi, Mediterranean, Caribbean jerk, Wagyu, grits, okra, Po Boy, and – the list is almost endless. The twenty-first century has witnessed the greatest diversity of cuisines in history. With consumers obviously clamoring for more and more.

The biggest food research programs back then – the 1950s were the application of ionizing radiation – gamma, X ray, electron beam for non-thermal food preservation. We were going to eliminate almost all heat from food processing and deliver safe, yummy, nutritious food with infinite shelf life without refrigeration in inexpensive lightweight pouches and bags. Who needed Napoleon and Appert? The perfect technology was about to give birth. Initially to serve military ration needs and astronaut desires and then to swarm the supermarkets. And then some tasted the products with less than sterling reports; the technologies were shelved but revived about once a decade by some who did not know or care to know the history. Ah, there remains a residual of low dose irradiation for extended refrigerated shelf life foods. Does anyone besides me remember these technologies?

During the 1940s and 1950s, microwave food heating was in a very, very few labs, including ours. Vacuum tubes and electronic gear were frightfully expensive for “cooking” foods. The advent of solid state electronics during the 1970s dropped the costs dramatically and microwave energy for morning coffee and evening snacks skyrocketed. Today microwave ovens are ubiquitous in domestic kitchens, food service outlets and even industrial applications. Will the impending low heat microwave pasteurization and sterilization evolve in this decade after so many years of “study?” Tune in next year.

And, for those who fear for our alimentary future, controlled/modified atmosphere processing for allegedly fresh and minimally processed foods were unheard of until the 1950s – today – up to 40 % of the food supply in industrialized nations. Will the screamers manage to disrupt food processing – or will this savior of man and womankind continue its wondrous trajectory — continuous progress to optimization of global systems to protect and preserve our growing food infrastructure. To feed the world!

And, dear reader, intelligent and active packaging – are you prepared for the coming dazzling era in food? Chef quality food, comprehensively nutritious, economic, universally available, and, most critical, safe to eat. Food systems that interact – with the distribution infrastructure and consumers. And cognizant of their role in planetary endurance.

Next week: A celebration of food waste, the coronavirus and food, the molecule that gets us going, and more food in the news

Dr. Aaron Brody has been recognized as one of the foremost authorities around the world in food packaging. He received his PhD in Food Technology from MIT in 1956. He taught numerous food science courses at the University of Georgia but was most well-known for his required Food Packaging course. He has authored or co-authored many textbooks including Modified Atmosphere Packaging for Fresh-Cut Fruits and Vegetables. I had the pleasure of co-teaching a graduate course in Chilled Foods with him. For more information on Dr. Brody see his Wikipedia page.   



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